YouTube Debate: Groundbreaking or Hype?

Zack Carroll admits he's "one of those political-nerd people." When the 15-year-old native of Burr Ridge, Ill., heard that CNN and YouTube were cohosting the Democrats' July 23 debate in South Carolina—and soliciting video inquiries for the candidates from anyone with a camera and a computer—he fired up his MacBook Pro, adjusted his Eddie Vedder hair and hit RECORD. His iMovie—a dim, grainy, 20-second affair that asks, "Unlike George [W. Bush], how will you appeal to [atheist and agnostic] voters?"—isn't ready for Cannes. But so far, YouTube viewers have ranked it as their favorite of the nearly 900 submissions. "I didn't think it would go anywhere," says Carroll. "Now I might actually get my question answered."

Not so fast. The first CNN-YouTube debate (the GOP meets in September) will be one of the highest-profile marriages of old and new media in the history of presidential politics—and (surprise!) the culture clash is well underway. The sore spot: who chooses the questions. YouTube users are accustomed to "voting" videos into the spotlight. The result, they say, is a site that can transform top-down campaign messages into two-way conversations between candidates and citizens. But CNN plans to ignore the wisdom-of-crowds approach and pick the clips itself. "It's dangerous," says executive producer David Bohrman. "With the anonymity of the Internet, you can cross the line. There's a small, good gatekeeper function we still need to play."

Much of the YouTube community disagrees. At TechPresident.com, a clearinghouse for Politics 2.0 chatter, associate editor Joshua Levy blogged that CNN is "pulling the rug out from under the so-called 'user-generated content' revolution." David Colarusso, a high-school physics teacher from Lexington, Mass., went one step further, creating a page on his Community Counts Web site that allows users to vote "answer" or "ignore" for each video question. (Carroll tops this list; YouTube doesn't rank the debate clips.) "Web 2.0 has the potential to actually compel candidates to be genuine," says Colarusso. "If there are enough people saying, 'Hey, listen to this,' then it's in the politicians' best interest to answer."

CNN and YouTube hope that the spectacle of voters interrogating White House contenders will quiet critics. "This is the most democratic debate ever," says Steve Grove, YouTube's politics editor. Bohrman's team, which includes moderator Anderson Cooper, has already sorted through more than 600 clips and will spend this week picking 25 to 30 finalists to broadcast from Charleston. (The major Democratic campaigns—who are "intrigued but nervous," says Bohrman—wouldn't comment on debate prep.) About 10 percent of the submissions are typical YouTube videos: a black-bearded Viking named Bjorn, for example, who asks about immigration. Others come from activists. But most, Bohrman says, "are just people who pointed a camera at themselves or a relative. They're really straightforward, interesting questions that the mainstream media couldn't, or wouldn't think to, ask." Meethali, the mother of "two young brown men," worries about racial profiling; Melissa Compagnucci films seniors and immigrants venting. "These aren't journalists," says Bohrman. "The candidates can't posture or blame the media." The exchange, adds Grove, will continue on a postdebate YouTube page; he expects the candidates to drop by.

But will the mainstream media, and the politicians they cover, ever fully relinquish the reins? Bohrman sympathizes with YouTubers who want the most popular videos picked—and certainly won't rule out a clip just because it's got traction. "But if this turned into a farce," he says, "it'd be the last time new media gets a seat at the table." For now, politicos can check out California Rep. George Miller's "Ask George" effort. Frustrated with his fellow Democrats' failure to force a withdrawal from Iraq—and under fire from liberal Bay Area constituents—Miller launched the first campaign on Community Counts to solicit video questions; viewers can vote on which ones his video podcasts answer. "This is a way for me to bring people inside the Beltway, and for them to drag me outside it," says Miller. "It's very much a conversation, and I can't just call it off. I'm not in the driver's seat anymore." Chances are other politicians are about to come to the same conclusion—ready or not.